kellybdc/Creative Commons
Source: kellybdc/Creative Commons

By Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., and Richard LeBeau, Ph.D.

The August 12 “Unite the Right” rally at the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus shocked the nation. Many Americans watched in horror as clashes between members of groups advocating for white supremacy and counter-protesters turned fatal. And this is not an isolated incident; tensions between groups are flaring in the U.S. to a degree that has not been seen in decades.

According to data gathered by the Center for Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, there was a 23.3 percent increase in hate crimes between 2015 and 2016 across the nine metropolitan areas they studied. Much of the focus in the media has been on what factors contributed to this surge, with many blaming key players in the extremely contentious 2016 presidential election for stoking the flames of hate. However, the question of why hate emerges and what factors lead people to act on it remain mostly confined to academic circles.

One fascinating explanation of intergroup discord is provided by the work of renowned social psychologist Dr. Susan Fiske of Princeton University.  She and her colleagues have conducted a large body of research examining how the manner in which we perceive members of groups that differ from our own impact the emotions that such individuals and groups elicit from us. Their research has mostly focused on two domains. The first is “perceived warmth,” or to what degree members of the group in question are perceived to have friendly intentions. The second is “perceived competence,” or how capable members of the group appear to be capable of enacting their intentions.

Using a variety of research methodologies including neuroimaging, behavioral experiments, and attitudinal surveys, Fiske and colleagues have found a strikingly convergent set of findings. Those who are perceived as high in warmth and competence elicit pride. For many Americans, prototypical groups in this category include the middle class and Christians. Those who are high in warmth but low in competence tend to elicit pity. For many, these are groups like the disabled and the elderly. Groups perceived to be low in warmth but high in competence elicit envy. In America, this tends to be the so-called “1 percent” (as well as racial/ethnic groups that are perceived to be overrepresented in the elite class, such as Jews and Asian-Americans.) And those who have the unfortunate distinction of being perceived to be low in warmth and low in competence elicit scorn. The most scorned groups in Fiske’s research were homeless and drug addicted individuals.

One of the most troubling findings from this research is this: scorn tends to be associated with a failure to attribute human qualities, such as thoughts and feelings, to the scorned individual or group. Another word for this process is dehumanization. Research shows that once an individual or group has been dehumanized, the willingness to inflict harm upon them—or at least the ability to remain unaffected by their suffering—is substantially increased. 

This research raises countless important questions, but, in the wake of Charlottesville, among the most notable is: How do we reduce, and prevent, the tendency to dehumanize others?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. It has long been argued that mere exposure to different groups of people reduces prejudice and indeed there is some evidence for this. For example, as the visibility of LGBT people increases in America, so does acceptance toward LGBTs. However, given that hate crimes are flaring in some of the most diverse places in our country, it is clearly not enough.

Experimental research routinely finds that intergroup tension is usually reduced when both groups feel secure and validated. Tension is further reduced when groups have to cooperate to achieve a common goal.

The perplexing question of how to translate these findings from the laboratory to our communities is now an urgent one. We need answers if we wish to stem the tide of rising hate. 

References

Fiske, S. T. (2011). Envy up, scorn down: How status divides us. Russell Sage Foundation.

Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2015). Dehumanized perception. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 219(3): 175-181.

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